Who Am I ?
“Who Do You Think You Are?” is a U.K. television programme in which well-known guests, assisted by expert researchers, are invited to delve into their family ancestry, in order to discover interesting and sometimes surprising facts about their forebears, in some cases reaching back over many generations. Quite often, participants get the feeling that knowledge about ancestors from the distant past can somehow throw light on their own identity or direction in life.
The relentless quest for meaningful, authentic identity is a prominent preoccupation of the current age, often referred to as an ‘identity crisis’. We are being persuaded to believe that we can be whoever we want to be! Who am I? It’s a question many of us may have asked ourselves at one time or another.
What exactly is identity, anyway? Is it located in the physical body or in the mind? Mind – my mind – a collection of thoughts, experiences, memories, opinions, bits of knowledge, possessions, relationships, achievements, reputation? Are all these transitory, changeable, impermanent, unreliable phenomena me or mine? If any of them were to change or vanish, would I still be “I” or “me”?
So, who or what do we think we are? We describe ourselves as humans, homo sapiens, endowed with intelligence and the freedom to make conditional choices. Fortunately, or unfortunately, making choices brings consequences, like the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Against God’s specific command, Adam chose to eat the forbidden fruit and this led Man to self-awareness. But this act of disobedience also led to his expulsion from the paradise-garden.
Self-awareness had been awakened and we became bound by consequences. Faced with temptation, it is hard not to give in to human curiosity and suffer as a result. One of Oscar Wilde’s characters famously quipped that he could resist anything except temptation.1
What is the self of which we have become aware, this “I”, this “me”, this “self”? We think of the self as located in a physical body, the same body that we occupy every morning when we wake and look in the mirror. We regard this body as ours. It seems fit for purpose most of the time even though we eventually notice gradual changes as we pass through the seven ages, from “mewling and puking in nurse’s arms” in infancy to “second childishness and mere oblivion”2 at the far end of life. Time takes its toll on the body. It’s on loan – “for a moment’s use” according to an ancient Buddhist text.
The higher dimension to being human is mind, discernment, consciousness. It makes us aware of our thoughts and actions. Conscience brings inner knowledge of what we are doing and why we are doing it. Conscience can’t be fooled. There is an old English and more graphic phrase for conscience — agenbite of inwit, the prick or remorse of conscience.” Inner knowledge of our behaviour and motives comes back to bite us.
Who is doing all this mental activity, this thinking, questioning, imagining, analyzing, and communicating? Can the individual mind know itself or have an idea of itself? Is there such a thing as the individual mind?
The 19th century French poet Rimbaud reached the conclusion that “one should not say I think but rather I am thought.” “Je est un autre”3 – meaning: ‘I am another’. Rimbaud abandoned poetry to pursue a more “real” search for his soul, as he put it.
Thoughts and emotions are in constant flux and so is the world around us. All concept of a stable “I” is undermined. It’s all very unsettling.
So, there is more to the self than just the body, or “life in a fading animal’s body,” as the Irish poet W. B. Yeats put it.4 We could lose bits of our body and still hold on to our sense of self. The body grows old – the self may not.
Furthermore, the self seems to point beyond our mind. A sense of self is certainly lodged in our mind. But we constantly change our mind. Fleeting thoughts, moods, desires, attractions, aversions, images, and all the rest of it grab our attention and then pass on.
The Chinese sage Chuang Tse (Zhuangzi) wrote: "Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”5
Can we be sure we even have a real and lasting self? Are we still the same self we always were? The mystics tell us that all these selves are just an illusion, transient, and have no lasting reality. In fact, all our mental activity keeps us away from the reality of who we really are.
The 20th century Indian mystic Ramana Maharshi is quoted as having said, “The question ‘who am I?’ is not really meant to get an answer, the question ‘who am I?’ is meant to dissolve the questioner.”6
The mystics go on to say that the only self that truly exists is the One Being who made us as parts of himself – which means that our reality, our true self, is the same as His. We’re made of the same stuff. Our innermost being and consciousness, our spirit or soul, the essence of our existence, can be found within ourselves.
In fact, what could be more important than the inner search for our real self?
Maharaj Charan Singh Ji put it like this: “If we just pursue that happiness within ourselves, we can become happy. And unless we find that happiness within ourselves, life is not worth living.”7
We need to contact our true self by changing the direction of our attention and turning it inwards, as all mystics have prescribed. To achieve that we must learn to control and still our own minds. But that is not so easy. How are we going to regain inner control over our restless mind when it has been turning outwards since the beginning of time?
The answer is meditation. Finding the centre of our own being, within ourselves, where there is stillness and silence, blissful peace and joy, and relief from all the turmoil going on around us.
We are body and mind indeed – but far more importantly we are soul, that part we cannot reach without help from a special sort of individual – an adept, a true master, who can show us how to discover our true self through meditation and inner quietness. The saving grace of this age is the presence of such masters or saints who can show us the way to realize our true selves.
The personal self leads nowhere but to dissatisfaction. The true self lies within. It can only find fulfillment by becoming one with the Divine of which it is a spark, through diligently following the guidance of a true master.
- Oscar Wilde, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Act 1
- William Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” Act 2, scene 7s
- Letter to Paul Demeny. 15th May 1871, Éditions Pléiade. pp. 343-344
- W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium,” Collected Poems, Papermac, 1971.
- Chuang Tzu, Taoist Philosopher and Chinese Mystic, George Allen and Unwin, 1961, p 47.
- Quotation attributed to Ramana Maharshi – Be As You Are, ed. David Godman; Penguin/Random House, 1989
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, vol.1, Q 225